Showing posts with label Coronavirus pandemic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Coronavirus pandemic. Show all posts

Thursday, May 14, 2020

One-day bankruptcies for corporations and decade-long bankruptcy proceedings for student debtors: Is that fair?

Jonathan Henes, a corporate attorney, wrote an op-ed essay for the Wall Stree Journal a few days ago calling for Congress to codify one-day bankruptcies for financially troubled corporations. "The one-day bankruptcy would streamline the bankruptcy practice," Henes argued and would reduce business disruptions and legal expenses.

Henes's appeal in the Wall Stree Journal is not the only suggestion for streamlining the corporate bankruptcies that are sure to come due to the coronavirus pandemic.  A group of legal scholars wrote a joint letter recently asking Congress to appoint more bankruptcy judges to deal with corporate bankruptcies that are looming on the national horizon.

Henes's essay and the legal scholars' letter both make reasonable suggestions on behalf of America's big businesses. If corporate America backs these proposals, they have a good chance of being enacted into law.

But is anyone thinking about relief for America's distressed student-loan debtors? After all, according to the Department of Education's own report, 8.1 million college borrowers are in long-term repayment plans that are designed never to be paid off and which can last for as long as 25 years. How about some bankruptcy relief for these people?

It would be cruelly ironic if Congress codifies one-day bankruptcies for corporations while the Bankruptcy Code makes it nearly impossible for insolvent student-loan borrowers to discharge their college loans in bankruptcy.

And even student debtors who prevail in the bankruptcy courts often find themselves embroiled in appellate proceedings that can last for years.  Michael Hedlund, for example, filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and sought to discharge student loans he had taken out to go to Willamette Law School. 

Ultimately, a bankruptcy judge granted Hedlund a partial discharge, but the decision was reversed by a federal district court. Hedlund appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately upheld his partial discharge. But the Ninth Circuit did not issue its opinion in Hedlund's case until 2013—ten years after he filed for bankruptcy!

One-day bankruptcies for big corporations and decade-long bankruptcy proceedings for beaten-down student debtors? That doesn't work for me.

References


Hedlund v.Educational Resources Institute, 718 F.3d 848 (9th Cir. 2013).

Henes, J. S. Congress Should Codify the One-Day Bankruptcy. Wall Street Journal, May11, 2020. 

Will Congress help corporations and ignore beaten-down student debtors?








Monday, May 4, 2020

Angry students sue more than 50 colleges after instruction goes on line in response to the coronavirus

A bunch of black swans showed up this spring, and they landed on top of every college administration building in America.

Last March, virtually every postsecondary institution shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Students who lived in campus dorms were told to scram.  Face-to-face instruction screeched to a halt, and the colleges began teaching their students online. The departing students lost access to professors, libraries, and college recreational facilities.

Most universities refunded dorm fees and student meal plans on a  proportional basis. But the universities didn't refund tuition, arguing that students are still getting fair value because their classes are continuing online.

The students aren't buying it. So far, students have sued more than 50 colleges demanding to get their tuition money back. Online instruction is inferior to interacting with professors in a real classroom, they maintain. And of course, they are right.

The colleges respond, with some justification, that they did not anticipate the coronavirus pandemic and are doing the best they can under the circumstances.   "Faculty and staff are literally working around the clock," Peter McDonough, a lawyer for a college trade group, argued defensively.

I sympathize with the colleges, but I can say with authority that professors don't work around the clock on anything.  If they claim to be working 24/7, they mean they're working 24 hours in a seven-day week.

And if the universities claim their distance-learning format is equal to face-to-face teaching, they are not telling the truth.  A few professors are tech-savvy and can quickly shift to online education, but a lot of them can't.

In any event, America's elite private schools have justified their nosebleed tuition by professing to offer small class sizes and ample opportunities to personally interact with their professors.  They can't credibly change their story now and claim that their online instruction justifies tuition at $50,000 a year.

Regardless of whether colleges win these lawsuits, they will be severely stressed financially in the coming months. One study predicts that four-year colleges could lose up to 20 percent of their fall enrollment. Any small private school that loses 20 percent of its students this fall will be closed by May.

If you are a professor who works at a small private college, it is time to formulate a Plan B. What will you do if your school shuts down and you are thrown out of work?

And if you are a student who plans to enroll at a small, private school this fall, you too need a Plan B. You need to find out what your institution's financial situation is. You do not want to take out student loans to pay tuition to attend a college that may close before you graduate.

The black swan: Coming soon to a campus near you





Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Coronavirus bailouts for the casinos but nothing for harried student-loan debtors: Let'em eat cake!

Congress turned on the money spigot last month and spewed out cash to millions of people and businesses that were hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

The airlines are getting bailout money, the casinos are eligible for aid, and corporations are accepting loans they don't needAutoWeb, for example, got a $1.4 million federal loan and gave its CEO a $1.7 million bonus one week later.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans are burdened by federal student loans they can't repay.  More than a year before the coronavirus outbreak, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos publicly admitted that only one out of four student borrowers were paying down both principal and interest on their federal loans.  One out of five borrowers, DeVos disclosed, were delinquent on their debts or in default.

Now, with the unemployment rate hovering near 15 percent, and millions of hourly workers out of a job, college-loan debtors are struggling more than ever.

And what has the Department of Education done to assist harried student debtors? Not much.

DOE is giving college-loan borrowers a six-month deferment from making their monthly payments, and it won't assess interest on outstanding loans during that time. DOE has also temporarily stopped seizing wages, Social Security benefits, and tax refunds of people who defaulted on their federal student loans.

In other words, the Trump administration is shoveling big bucks to corporations, while it throws a few crumbs to college-loan borrowers.

Here's an illustration that shows just how meaningless the Trump administration's response to the student-loan crisis has been.

Laurina Bukovics borrowed $20,000 more than 30 years ago to obtain a bachelor's degree from Wisconsin University. Through the years, she made regular monthly loan payments except during times when DOE gave her deferments or forbearances due to her financial difficulties.

Over 25 years, Bukovics repaid $29,000 on her student loans—140 percent of what she borrowed. Nevertheless, by the time she showed up in bankruptcy court, her student-loan debt had grown to $80,000—four times what she had received from the federal loan program.

How much relief does a six-month moratorium on loan payments give to people like  Ms. Bukovics, who have been burdened by student debt for their entire adult lives and have seen their loan burdens double, triple, or even quadruple?

Hardly any relief at all.  The federal government has poured out trillions to alleviate the financial crisis that was triggered by the COVID-19 virus.  But much of this money has gone to corporations and businesses. 

When corporations ask the feds for money to help them get through the coronavirus pandemic, the government responds by saying, "Where do we send the check?"

On the other hand, when beaten-down student-loan debtors try to discharge their student debt in bankruptcy, the federal government almost always opposes relief. Ms. Bukovics, for example, was unemployed while she was in bankruptcy and living temporarily with a friend. She had no car, and she was so impoverished that she qualified for food stamps and Medicaid.

And what was the response by the Department of Education's debt collector to Ms. Bukovics's plight?  ECMC opposed bankruptcy relief because it believed Bukokvics was spending too much money on food.


Betsy DeVos's summer home




Monday, April 20, 2020

Coronavirus is a black swan event for regional public colleges: Many will be forced to close

A black swan event is an unexpected occurrence that has potentially devastating consequences. For higher education, the coronavirus pandemic is a black swan event.

Even before COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the national economy, American colleges were suffering from enrollment declines. Declining birthrates have led to a shrinking number of college-age individuals in recent years. Small liberal arts colleges and for-profit institutions were particularly hard hit.

Regional public colleges are also suffering. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state's system of public universities saw an enrollment decline of 20 percent between 2010 and 2019. One small public college, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, saw its student body shrink by 61 percent to less than 1,000 students. Lock Haven University, another Pennsylvania public school, experienced an enrollment drop of 42 percent.

Thanks in large part to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education projects that its 14 public universities will lose between $70 million and $100 million this spring. Some state legislators are calling for the system's small colleges to close.

Several Ohio public universities have also seen enrollment declines. Ohio University, Kent State University, the University of Toledo, and the University of Akron all lost students in 2019.

The University of Wisconsin's 26 two- and four-year institutions have recorded enrollment drops as well. UW's two-year colleges experienced a shocking 49 percent drop between 2010 and 2019.  One institution, UW-Plattville at Richland, a satellite campus of UW-Plattville, lost 58 percent of its students in just one year.  As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, the University of Wisconsin's branch campuses had fewer students in 2019 than they did in 1973.

All these enrollment drops took place before the coronavirus pandemic showed up. And enrollment declines will surely accelerate in the wake of statewide stay-at-home orders that have triggered staggering drops in state tax revenues.

In the years to come, regional publ colleges all over the United States will be forced to close. Many states have far too many regional campuses. As public revenues decline in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the states simply can't afford to keep them open.

Moreover, increased opportunities for online learning are making regional campuses obsolete. If students are going to take their classes from home computers, there is no need to have a brick-and-mortar campus in their neighborhood.

College-bound high school graduates who decide to enroll at a public university in their home state should make every effort to get admitted to their state's flagship public university.  By and large, the flagships are seeing an uptick in their enrollments and can offer broader course offerings and student services than the regionals.

A few regional public institutions are thriving and maintaining their enrollment levels. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where I taught until I retired, is poised to remain viable even if the economic downturn persists. ULL has a nursing school, engineering programs, and computer-science offerings that make its degrees attractive in Louisiana's job market.

But in Louisiana and in most states, the small, marginal public colleges that were often their community's largest employer will be shutting down. For most students, it will not make sense to attend a regional school that may disappear before they pay off their student loans.











Wednesday, April 15, 2020

As the economy spirals downward,take charge of your mental health


Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor

Hard Times
Stephen Foster (1854)

Make no mistake. America is spiraling downward toward a major Depression. Seventeen million people have already lost their jobs, and the unemployment rate will undoubtedly rise later in the year. Many unemployed people won't be able to pay their rent or make their mortgage payments.   Laid-off workers who had employer-provided health insurance will lose it and find they can't afford to pay for it themselves.

Financial stress has mental-health consequences and people who have suffered financial setbacks will be understandably depressed.  Thus, if you are one of the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs or a substantial part of their retirement savings, you need to pay close attention to your own mental health.

First, if you find yourself slipping into clinical depression, let your doctor know. Depression is a fairly common malady and is treatable. Your family physician can prescribe an antidepressant that can alleviate this medical condition.

Second, get some physical exercise, but don't overdo it. You don't need to run a marathon to get the benefits of physical activity. Just take a walk or ride your bicycle. Exercise is a proven way to reduce stress and depression, and relief is usually immediate.

Third, pay attention to what you eat. If you are down on your luck and scraping by on unemployment checks and food stamps, you may need to cut your food budget. But try to continue eating foods that you enjoy.  A good meal, especially a meal shared with family and friends, helps relieve depression.

If you are pinching pennies, you will probably stop eating in restaurants. But you can buy a cheap grill and broil hotdogs in the backyard.  You can also learn to cook inexpensive food so that it tastes delicious. I once swore I would never eat collard greens, but my wife cooks them so well that greens taste like a gourmet dish. 

Fourth, don't neglect relaxation. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, people went to the movies, which provided cheap entertainment. Today, a movie, a soda, and some popcorn will set you back about fifteen bucks.

But a Netflix subscription doesn't cost much, and you can see a new movie every night of the week. Don't cancel that subscription to cut costs unless you are desperate.

Fifth, take up a hobby.  If you are poor, you will probably not take up golf or skiing. But you can plant a small garden, even if it is nothing more than a potted tomato plant by your back door. You will find it immensely satisfying to grow and eat vegetables you grew yourself.

Finally, remember that the financial hardship you are experiencing is not your fault. You are the victim of twin evils: corporate greed and the coronavirus. 

If you've been laid off precipitously, told to clean out your desk, and walked to your car by a security officer, you have not lost your human dignity or the capacity to live a rewarding life. Do everything you can to take care of yourself and your family, and remember to manage your mental health.


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Bait and Switch: In response to the coronavirsus pandemic, colleges shifted to online instruction. Students aren't happy

According to Investopedia, "Bait and switch is a morally suspect sales tactic that lures customers in with specific claims about quality or low prices . . ." However, once customers are lured in,  "the advertised deal does not exist, or is of far inferior quality or specifications, where the buyer is then presented with an upsell."

When the universities shut down last month in response to the coronavirus pandemic, they sent their students home and partially refunded dorm fees they had collected from students living on campus. They also shifted all face-to-face teaching to online instruction while continuing to charge full tuition.

In essence, the universities engaged in bait and switch. They promised a classroom learning experience, but they substituted an inferior product--cobbled together online classes.

 But many students weren't happy with the change. In their view, online teaching is an inferior product.

Inside Higher Ed told the story of Arica Kincheloe, who took out $50,000 in student loans to enroll in a one-year accelerated program in social service administration at the University of Chicago.
Like most higher education institutions, the University of Chicago canceled on-campus classes and directed faculty to shift to a distance-learning format.

But Kincheloe believes she has been shortchanged. "It's a throwaway--a shortened quarter," she said. "I do not feel like I am getting the same education that I would have otherwise."

Other University of Chicago students agree with Kincheloe.  Fifteen hundred students signed a petition calling for a 50 percent reduction in tuition, and 850 students formed a group that is threatening to withhold their tuition payments.

UChicago administrators don't see a problem with the change. Administrators say students will get full credit toward their degrees even though the instruction has been modified. Therefore, the university will continue charging students full tuition.

The University of Chicago probably considers this controversy a temporary annoyance. All this may blow over if the university returns to traditional on-campus teaching this fall.

But I doubt it.

Private colleges have justified extortionary tuition by arguing that a student's on-campus experience--both curricular and extracurricular--is superior.  Those ivy-covered buildings, those cerebral tweed-coated professors, networking opportunities to mingle with rich people--the elite universities claim the whole package justifies charging tuition as high as $60,000 a year.

But if students are sitting at home taking classes that are little more than correspondence courses, then they might as well go to a less expensive state university.

Likewise, HBCUs are going to have difficulty justifying their existence if their instruction moves to a distance-learning format. As Pearl K. Dowe argued in a recent essay, the survivability of HBCUs "has always been rooted in their commitment to serve, educate and advance Black students in a [physical]space that is edifying, nurturing and empowering." So why would Black students enroll at an HBCU if they're taking their classes online?


I'm not saying the universities intentionally engaged in bait and switch. The pandemic forced them to suspend traditional classroom teaching. But they know that their hastily put-together online classes are a cheap substitute for face-to-face interaction with professors. In fact, many universities have gone to pass/fail grading for online instruction--an implicit admission that this mode of teaching is inferior.

I agree with the University of Chicago students.  The online instruction they are getting is not what they bargained for and is a shoddy substitute. The University of Chicago should slash tuition for the spring semester by 50 percent.

Online instruction is a shoddy substitute for classroom teaching.









Friday, April 3, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic: Is it time to stock up on canned goods and ammunition?

On the last day of February, I was attending the annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Association in Austin, Texas. I was thinking about history, not the coronavirus.

Today, I am "sheltering in place" in my home in Baton Rouge and 10,000 Louisianians have been diagnosed with COVID-19. As Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys reminded us during the Great Depression, "Time changes everything."

In the twinkle of an eye, the stock market plummeted more than 11,000 points. Retired Americans lost a substantial amount of their saving, which they probably won't recover. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis predicts an unemployment rate of more than 30 percent in the coming months, higher than during the Great Depression.

In my own extended family, four people have lost their jobs. My niece and her husband worked in New Orleans restaurants, and now they are both out of work. They have two small children.

Handguns, shotguns, and assault rifles are flying off the shelves, and some stores have run out of ammunition. A gunshop in my city ran a firearms sale recently, and you could pick up a 9 mm semi-automatic for less than $300.

Is it time to start stockpiling canned goods and ammunition?  I say not yet.

Americans are confident and self-reliant people. Our medical researchers and researchers in Asia and Europe will come up with a vaccine for coronavirus, and then we will all get vaccinated.  I believe we will conquer this virus within a couple of years at the latest.

The economy, however, is another thing entirely. President Trump signed a $2 trillion relief bill intended to head off a Depression.  But our government was running a deficit budget even before the pandemic began, and a $2 trillion bailout by itself won't bring my relatives' jobs back.

For a long time now, Americans have been living like "the road goes on forever, and the party never ends." But the party is over. At the governmental level and the personal level, we've borrowed too much money, and we can't pay it back.

We can take out more credit cards and print more money, but our reckoning day is near. When will it be time to start stocking up on canned goods and ammunition? Perhaps when the California and Illinois pension funds collapse.  Or when China starts dumping U.S. bonds.